There is a force within us that is controlling almost everything that we do, and most of us are obliviously unaware of it. We think that we eat when we are hungry, sleep when we are tired and drink when we are thirsty. The reality is that our biological clock is the silent timekeeper that is telling us when to do these things.
This tyrannical timekeeper not only controls our physical behaviors. It also dictates our moods and emotions. Every other living organism is also controlled by a biological clock. But humans are the only ones who have attempted to ignore the body clock and do their own thing.
The results have been disastrous. By ignoring our body clocks and not aligning them with our geological clock, we have become sicker, less productive, more prone to injury, more depressed, and most importantly more stressed. In this article, we will examine how the body clock works and why you need to keep your life in sync with it. We will then provide you with 5 key steps that will allow you to realign your body clock with your geological clock.
The Rhythms of Life
The universe that we live in is controlled by a series of basic rhythms. The earth will turn on its axis every 24 hours, every 365.25 days, it revolves around the sun, twice a day the tides roll over the shore. These basic rhythms are replicated in living creatures. It is through these internal timing processes that all living things have been able to adapt in order to maximize their ability to reproduce and survive.
The majority of the rhythms within humans are known as daily circadian rhythms. These rhythms take place over a 24-hour cycle. Our internal clock can be likened to the conductor of an orchestra that keeps the ensemble of bodily functions occurring harmoniously on time and in order.
Your biological clock is reset at sunrise and sunset each day to link astronomical time with our internal time. This can be likened to a radio station which can be used to reset a wristwatch to the oscillating of an atomic clock.
Your internal body clock is controlled by a region of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). This portion of the brain is located where the optic nerves meet. This allows the SCN to receive immediate input from light in order to regulate the body clock. In addition to sunlight, the SCN relies upon genes to work.
Our most important daily circadian rhythm is the sleep/wake cycle. When evening rolls around and there is less light being fed into the SCN, the body releases the hormone melatonin, which induces sleepiness. Throughout the night more melatonin is produced and then, when the sun comes up, the production of this hormone is inhibited. This puts the wake-up circuit into operation.
We also have daily circadian rhythms for hunger and thirst. The hormones responsible for hunger and satiation, ghrelin and leptin are released and inhibited over the course of the day in accordance with these rhythms.
The body clock also regulates such things as the rise and fall of blood sugar over each 24-hour period, and the release of immunity fighting hormones.
What Happens When We Get Out of Sync
Today we live in an artificial environment. We use artificial light to extend our periods of wakefulness and activity into the evening hours. We have brought our technology into the bedroom, which has severely impacted on the quantity of our dark time sleep. Even during the summer months, the average person only gets two hours of natural light.
A direct result of this disturbance of our day and night cycles is the condition that is known as the seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This is a mood disorder which involves a recurring autumn or winter depression. People who have SAD tend to have a craving for carbohydrates, which leads to an average weight gain of 5-10 kilograms.
While SAD has traditionally been linked with the long winter months, it has increasingly been linked to the deprivation of natural sunlight and its effect on our daily circadian rhythms.
In our artificial world and its absence of daily sunlight, we rely on a range of cues, most notably the alarm clock to keep us in line with the solar cycle. However, when we sleep at irregular times, fly across time zones or work shifts, we run into problems.
Many of us have experienced the strange feelings within us when, after a long flight or a series of shifts when the clock says 9:00 am and yet our body clock is reading 4:00 pm. We struggle through the day feeling lethargic and physically unwell.
Jet lag affects the body more acutely. When you fly over a few time zones you feel fatigue, you are unable to fall asleep, you suffer from body pains, digestive problems, and disorientation. Decision-making ability can be downgraded by up to 50%, communication skills by 30% memory by 20% and attention span by 75%.
People who suffer from jet lag have trouble sleeping, so the symptoms seem to get worse in the second and third days after the time shift. On the first day, all of the rhythms are equally out of synch. Then the various body rhythms, such as temperature, endocrine, gastrointestinal and sleep/wake patterns, adjust at different rates.
While the effects of occasional jet-lag are temporary, continually flying backward and forwards across time zones has long-term effects. A study was conducted in the year 2000 by Cho, et al that scanned the brains of female flight cabin staff with at least five years of flying experience. The researchers discovered that those who make regular journeys across several time zones demonstrated evidence of impaired thinking ability. The researchers put this down to higher cortisol levels brought on by interrupted daily circadian rhythms.
Shift workers also have real body clock problems. They are in a double bind in that, even if they do try to get their sleep quotient, they may not be able to sleep when they want to. Even when they try to sleep, their circadian rhythms will make it difficult.
Physical problems that are associated with shift work-related body clock disruption include an incidence of peptic ulcer disease eight times greater than that in the normal population. Shift workers also have an increased rate of cardiovascular mortality, estimated as the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes per day. Other physical problems include chronic fatigue, excessive sleepiness and difficulty spieling. Shift workers also have higher rates of substance abuse, depression, and divorce.
5 Habits to Keep your Body Clock synched with your Geo Clock
Establish and Stick to a Routine
Get your sleep cycle realigned with your body clock’s rhythm and you will go a long way to solving all of your circadian rhythm problems. The first step to achieving this is to get into a regular nighttime routine. Establish a set time to go to bed each night. Then, put in place a pattern of activity in the hour before going to bed that relaxes and unwinds you. This may include taking a bubble bath, reading a book or writing in a journal.
Do these activities outside of your bedroom. It is critical that there is a strong connection between bed and sleep. That connection should actually trigger the sleep process.
Sex, fortunately, is a unique activity in that it is relaxing. It is a natural prelude to sleep. Sex also releases endorphins, giving you a happy, warm and glowing feeling when you lie down to sleep. And unlike, watching TV or reading, sex doesn’t go on forever – it has a finite finish point.
The key here is that the bed is for sleep or sex – nothing else!
Eliminate Light at Night
Make your bedroom as dark as possible. Have thick curtains and ensure that no artificial light is feeding into the room from other areas of the house. You must also keep all technology out of your bedroom. That includes your laptop, television and your phone. There is nothing that has mucked up our circadian rhythms more in the last five years than the mobile phone.
Professor Shantha Rajaratnam of the Monash University ‘s School of Psychology and Psychiatry in Melbourne, Australia is a leading researcher on the effect of portable digital devices on circadian rhythms. Professor Rajaratnam stated that “we know from preliminary reports that this level of light emission, 30 to 50 lux, is sufficient over a week or so to delay the timing of the circadian clock as well as suppress the production of the hormone melatonin.”
According to Professor Rajaratnam, the most disruptive light is shortwave blue light, which just happens to be the type of light that backlit portable screens are comprised of.
Studies conducted at Monash University show that spending time in front of a backlit portable screen within two hours of going to bed can adversely affect circadian rhythms. Professor Rajaratnam's recommendation is that devices be shut down two hours before retiring and never brought into the bedroom.
Avoid Caffeine & Alcohol at Night
Caffeine: Being a stimulant, caffeine is the last thing that you want to pour into your system before going to bed. If you are a coffee drinker, have your last one in the mid-afternoon.
Coffee disrupts both the quantity and quality of your sleep. Coffee can reduce the amount of time throughout the night that we enter Stage Four deep sleep. This is the part of sleep that makes you feel awake when you wake up. If you want to have a more restful, peaceful deep sleep – and you know how vital that is to your circadian rhythms – you simply have to take control of your caffeine consumption, especially in the evening.
Alcohol: Recent studies have debunked the idea that a glass of wine will help you get a good night’s sleep. While it’s true that it might allow you to get to sleep sooner, it is also likely to wake you up as the night progresses. In addition, alcohol offers your body nothing but empty calories. Many beers, mixers, and alcopops are also full of sugar. As a result, alcohol will make you fat.
During the second half of the night, your sleep cycle increases its periods of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. This affects your learning process and memory consolidation.
When you’ve been drinking close to bed-time, you will also have to wake up throughout the night to use the bathroom. This a recipe for a sluggish, non-rejuvenating and disappointing night’s sleep that see you dragging your tail around all morning. That is not what you want!
Eat Light at Night
In the evening your body clock is gearing down and preparing for sleep. Eating a large dinner meal interferes with that natural cycle, making it difficult to get a good night’s rest.
In the evenings, most of us end up blobbing in front of the TV or computer screen, periodically piling more food into our mouths. Then, when we sleep all of that unused fuel has nowhere to go – except, of course, onto our hips and thighs.
For many of us, the evening is downtime. It’s time for us to de-stress, to switch our minds off and do something for ourselves. For many people that equation has resulted in the habit of consuming calorie-laden non-foods just before bed-time. That is a surefire way to mess up your body clock.
Lying down in your bed is not the ideal position for your body to digest food. Yet, that’s exactly what will happen if you eat after dinner. It’s a far better idea to have a relatively early dinner (5:30 - 6:00 PM) and go for an easy walk around the neighborhood about an hour later.
Winding down at the end of the day, without forcing your body to cope with digestion late into the night, gives your body the best opportunity for quality sleep in keeping with its natural rhythm. On the other hand, eating before bed can result in indigestion, which will interfere with a person’s quality of sleep. There is also growing body of research that links weight gain with lack of sleep quality. To get the better sleep you have simply got to develop the habit of not eating after dinner.
Regular exercise is one of the best habits that you can get into. But exercising in the evening can have a detrimental effect on your ability sleep and, therefore, synchronize your body clock. Exercise does the opposite of all the things that you are trying to accomplish in order to get a good night’s sleep. It increases the heart rate, lifts the body temperature and brings on the secretion of hormones that are counter to the relaxation process.
In order to ensure that exercise does not interfere with your sleep pattern, give yourself at least three hours between your workout and going to bed. Don't keep your workout restricted to the gym, there is a lot that you can do at your home. Check out our workout guide for frequent travelers.
The Bottom Line
Your body is programmed to run a certain way. When you go against that natural rhythm you will operate less than optimally. Our modern techie lifestyle runs counter to our body clock’s settings, so the only way to attain to optimum health, well-being, and vitality is to break the mold and begin working in harmony with our daily circadian rhythms.
Developing the 5 habits mentioned above will take real discipline and effort. But once they become part of your lifestyle, you will be amazed at how much more alive you feel!